Review: Ilkley and Otley Choral Societies sing Handel’s Israel in Egypt, St Margaret’s Church, Ilkley, Saturday 14th March 2020

FOLLOWING their successful performance of Haydn’s Creation last year, Ilkley and Otley Choral Societies under their new permanent conductor, Jennifer Sterling, made an adventurous choice to perform Handel’s equally challenging Israel in Egypt at St Margaret’s Church on Saturday night. This, the second of Handel’s London oratorios, is unusually dependent on the chorus, which is involved in three-quarters of the numbers, a full half of which are scored for double chorus, ie are in eight parts. This makes it a challenge for any choral society to relish and is especially appropriate, as here, for the joint forces of two societies. However there is always the danger that splitting each part can also cruelly expose any weaknesses.

It was clear that the choirs had been well rehearsed. The two dark and solemn choruses – ‘he sent a thick darkness’ and ‘the depths have covered them’ were brought off well. There were also some great passages of rhythmic excitement in the opening and closing choruses of Part II, particularly with the phrase ‘the horse and his rider’, as well as in the plague choruses in Part I. The basses were strong throughout and the sopranos, despite occasional problems of intonation, made a good impression however the inner parts, particularly when singing alone, were less impressive and I missed the bright balanced choral sound of which this group is capable.

The tenor, Philip O’Connor, presented his recitatives well and the two baritones made a sound job of their striking duet, ’The Lord is a man of war’, though I preferred the more focused tone of Graham McCusker. There were three excellent soprano soloists although I question the wisdom of using a mezzo soprano instead of a male alto for the alto music. This led to a lack of balance in the tenor/alto duet although Jessica Conway came into her own in the following solo, ‘Thou shalt bring them in’.

The chorus and soloists were supported on this occasion by the Yorkshire Chamber Ensemble, led by Sally Robinson and comprising strings, wind and notably two trumpets, three trombones and timpani. They produced a wonderful sound throughout, the strings particularly agile as both frogs and flies in the plague choruses and the trombones adding a sumptuous richness to the bass sound. Balance between chorus and orchestra was always excellent. Robert Sudall at the electronic keyboard ably supplied a continuo of both harpsichord and organ together with the cello of Martin Cousins.

Overall this was an enjoyable performance of a rarely heard work and one which was received with enormous enthusiasm by a very supportive audience.

by Chris Skidmore